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From baseball players to journalists and entertainers, prominent Americans have been held to account recently for their past online comments. While it isn’t new for people to lose jobs or social standing because of offensive tweets or outright bigotry, the latest incidents seem to be changing the public conversation. Some thinkers are questioning the rise of trolls who scour the social archives of prominent people and the digital-mob recrimination that can follow. As a generation of young people weaned on the terminals of social media outlets rises in the workforce, employers and others are calling for a focus on nuanced questions. How do people mature and grow over time? What is the intent and context of provocative posts? What’s the boundary between aggressive polemic and bigotry? “I think people should be held responsible for their past selves and posts but with cautious consequences,” says Jill Panté, director of the Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware. “We need to look at the past but also look at the current actions being taken by that person. Your younger self may not be who you are now.”
Over a decade into the rollicking era of tweets and online posts, the nation is still grappling with the mores of online speech and conduct.
Over the past month or so, a number of high profile journalists, talk show hosts, and entertainment bigwigs have seen their past outpourings resurface in a negative light. A number of young professional athletes, too, have had to answer for racial slurs and anti-gay comments posted when they were teens.
The issue of online vitriol isn’t new, of course. Not a few people have lost their jobs and their social standing after making an ill-advised momentary quip.
But it’s become something of a virtual bloodsport. Online trolls and political rabble-rousers comb through the social media archives of the famous and politically active, looking for past “gotcha” posts that might have crossed a hard-to-define cultural line that marks off the offensive and unacceptable.
Now, after a decade of celebrating the possibilities of free speech online, conversation is turning toward questions of civic responsibility and personal character – notably for employers making decisions on who to hire, or in many cases, who to fire.
More and more, social thinkers and employers are trying to take a more nuanced view of past tweets and social media posts. And many are trying to account for those parts of human complexity that rarely come across in the virtual world.
How do people mature and grow over time? What is the intent and context of provocative posts? What's the boundary between aggressive polemic and bigotry?
“People should be held accountable for what they've posted when it reflects who they are,” says Adrienne McNally, director of an experiential education and civic engagement program at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. “However, for many people, these posts represent momentary lapses in judgment that remain forever on the internet. This is especially true for people that were posting while in their tweens and teens, when they didn't necessarily know who they were and what they stood for.”
Most of the past and present controversies, too, surround two of the nation’s most vexing and divisive political issues: race and sexuality.
A pitcher’s past
Last month, Major League Baseball, which has a scant fan base among black Americans, saw a number of its younger players called out for racist and homophobic posts when they were teens. The Milwaukee Brewers’ All Star relief pitcher Josh Hader, now 24, had tweeted expressions of white supremacy, using the vilest of racial slurs publicly.
“I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature,” he said, “and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.” Still, the mostly white crowd in Milwaukee gave him a standing ovation after his first appearance after his youthful tweets were made more widely public, a reaction many observers thought pointed to the nation’s ongoing struggle with racial conflict. MLB officials have since instructed the young pitcher to undergo sensitivity training.
Indeed, as those in their early 20s begin entering the workforce, employers may need to take more subtle approach to the online records of those weaned in the virtual realities of social media, in which offensive teenage utterances are unwittingly blasted out to the world.
For journalists and entertainers, however, offensive racial and sexual comments have sparked a wide-ranging political debate about the meaning of intent and context – or those nuances of human communication that are so difficult to convey in pithy online posts.
‘A lynch mob against Jeong’
Last month, The New York Times hired the accomplished journalist Sarah Jeong, an expert on internet culture and online harassment, to join its editorial board. Born in South Korea, she had tweeted a number of aggressive quips against white people, using the hashtag #CancelWhitePeople, and other profanity-laced tweets. "It's kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men," she tweeted in 2014.
Ms. Jeong, who was the focus of online harassment in the past, said she was mimicking the style of online trolls and intending the language to be understood as parody and satire. “These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns,” she said in a statement. “I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again.”
While saying that such “rhetoric is not acceptable at The Times,” the newspaper defended the hire and extolled Jeong’s work, despite such tweets.
But many conservatives accused the paper of a racist double standard. In February, the Times hired the tech journalist Quinn Norton, only to fire her seven hours later after many online users unearthed some of her past posts, in which she used racial and homosexual slurs and noted her friendship with a notorious neo-Nazi hacker.
And as a journalist who covered the darker regions of the internet, Ms. Norton was unapologetic about her friendships with “terrible people,” and the contexts of her use of “in-group” language, which included words considered deeply offensive slurs. The Times actually fired her online doppelgänger, she wrote.
“I'm tempted to think there's a pretty fundamental reason that Jeong weathered the storm, while Norton and [others] drowned at sea,” wrote Robby Soave, an editor and conservative thinker at Reason magazine, after a number of conservative users rallied to demand the Times also fire Jeong.
“Norton … committed thought crimes against intersectional progressivism,” Mr. Soave argued. “But ‘white people’ are not an exploited category, according to the kind of thinking popular on college campuses these days, and many leftists therefore do not think it is wrong to malign them. Calling out this hypocrisy is a worthwhile exercise; supporting the lynch mob against Jeong is not.”
Yet many on the left indeed distinguish between racist expressions by various groups with varying levels of social power.
“Of course, racist comments should always be deplored regardless of context or medium, and unfortunately, computer-mediated communication short-circuits the usual inhibitions that censor these kinds of comment,” says Simon Gottschalk, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
“At the same time, some suggest that white racism is significantly different from racism emanating from any minority group for at least one reason,” Professor Gottschalk continues. “White racists often have the power to translate their racism into real negative effects for members of a minority group, while the reverse is not true.”
How much does context matter?
Yet, social media has often been characterized by aggressive and provocative one-liners, and so-called mean tweets are often celebrated for their snark and humor. And in the long tradition of comedic arts, would-be wags and social wits often push the boundaries of social and racial taboos, attempting to get a rise out of audiences with transgressive or “politically incorrect” statements.
Last month, however, Disney booted James Gunn from the director's chair of the latest entry in the Marvel franchise “Guardians of the Galaxy.” In the past, Mr. Gunn had a provocative sense of humor that intentionally crossed into deeply sensitive topics, tweeting jokes about pedophilia, rape, and AIDS.
And as an alum of Troma Entertainment, a film production company known for its intentionally edgy and transgressive brand of horror films, such humor had long been part of Mr. Gunn’s sensibility. And the cast members of his films have vigorously stood by him.
Indeed, since the time of the comedian Lenny Bruce, transgressive and intentionally offensive jokes have been considered in many ways acceptable, at least in the contexts of self-selecting audiences in the dark cellars of comedy clubs or even the public “roasts” of famous people on TV, including President Trump.
Yet in the vast public arenas of online discourse, such contexts often evaporate. “A message we send in a particular context to a particular other is read in a completely different context by an unintended audience,” says Gottschalk, who authored “The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times,” which explores the toll of our increasingly online lives. “This de-contextualization alters the message's original meaning.”
Even so, Gunn issued a public apology, saying he understood the business decision behind his firing, and regretted making jokes online that were “not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped.”
“Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then,” he continued. “All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse.”
Some conservative and liberal thinkers have decried Gunn’s firing, and experts continue to say that context and intent need to be a more significant part of reactions to controversial statements made in the past.
“I think people should be held responsible for their past selves and posts but with cautious consequences,” says Jill Panté, director of the Lerner Career Services Center at the University of Delaware in Newark. “We need to look at the past but also look at the current actions being taken by that person.”
“Your younger self may not be who you are now – most of us learn from our mistakes and try to grow,” Ms. Panté continues. “Seeing those old posts on your feed is just a reminder of the person you aren’t anymore, and it’s time to delete them and move on.”